[Bob] Hurford’s general sentiment about this year’s drought was shared by all who presented reports at the Ouray State of the Rivers meeting at the Ouray County 4H Event Center May 16. The presentations came two weeks after Gov. John Hickenlooper activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector in 34 of the state’s 64 counties, including San Miguel, Ouray, Montrose, and Delta counties…
Hurford explained that over half of the Rocky Mountains’ water supply is in its snowpack. As of April 1, Colorado’s snowpack was 68 percent of average and 64 percent of last year’s. Data maps show that the April 1 snowpack was between 50 percent and 69 percent for Ouray and Montrose counties, and below 50 percent for San Miguel County. Division 4, the eastern area around Gunnison, has the most snowpack; the San Juan Mountains have the least, with snowpack above Ridgway Reservoir at just 46 percent of average.
Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California had the lowest amount of precipitation in the U.S. this winter, and those four states — plus Nevada and New Mexico — had the highest temperatures from November 2017 to January 2018, according to statistics in Hurford’s report.
Data from reservoirs in October 2017 show that Colorado had one of its best years with close to 120 percent of average water levels statewide, 100 percent of average in Division 4 and around 116 percent of average in Ridgway Reservoir. Over the last two decades, reservoirs were at or above 100 percent for 11 years.
“We can survive one bad drought. Two bad droughts in a row and that gets us,” Hurford said.
Ridgway Reservoir Dam Superintendent Tony Mitchell, of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, showed National Weather Service forecast data that estimated January-April 1 flows into the reservoir at 88 percent of average in 2016, 111 percent in 2017 and 49 percent in 2018. For the period of April 1 through July, the main runoff season, flow estimates were 92 percent of average in 2016, 96 percent in 2017 and 40 percent in 2018.
Responding to a question about why the reservoir has looked lower than usual this spring, Tri-County Water Conservancy District Manager Mike Berry said late-season releases to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) were larger than usual last year, precipitation was low last summer and storage levels are kept lower than normal to avoid water spilling over the dam, which would send non-native fish into the Uncompahgre River, endangering the trout there.
UVWUA Manager Steve Andersen, who is also a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said, “My association will be OK this year. There’s not as much water as we would like to have, but we will be able to make a crop this year.”
However, to ensure its downstream water users have enough water, the association in Montrose may have to put a call on water use later in the season, shutting headgates to irrigators upstream in Ouray County (who have junior water rights). Andersen does not expect to make a similar call on water on the upper Gunnison River side because of better snowpack, which should maintain higher flows there. He said the association would use that Gunnison water before resorting to a call on the Ouray side…
The last time that Ouray irrigators had to shut their headgates due to low stream flows and obligations to more senior water rights holders downstream was in 2012. That is when the Ouray County Water Users Association was founded…
With the drought conditions came concerns about wildfires, and Ouray and Montrose counties implemented Stage 1 Fire Restrictions on [May 21, 2018]. Stage 1 limits the areas where fires, smoking and spark-igniting activities can take place, according to the State of Colorado Department of Fire Prevention. Stage 2 adds more restrictions, while Stage 3 is the strictest, limiting entry into closed areas and setting fines as high as $10,000 for violators, or imprisonment for six months.